PALM SUNDAY kicks off Holy Week, the culmination of Lent for Christians the world over. Few countries commemorate the week leading up to Easter Sunday with more fervor than Spain, particularly in the southern region of Andalusia.
During Semana Santa, processions of penitents accompanied by singing, dancing and fireworks fill the twisting streets of every town.
Brotherhoods of colorfully hooded and robed men march while their more muscular brethren hoist huge floats bearing lifelike depictions of the suffering of Jesus and the sorrows of his mother, Mary.
Chef Jason Stratton, who owns the new, Spanish-inspired restaurant Aragona in downtown Seattle, has seen the riveting spectacle firsthand in Granada, and recalls being struck by the mix of religious rapture and festive excitement: “As much as they are celebrating the death of Christ, they are celebrating community, a coming together.”
The traditional foods of Semana Santa reflect the duality of the celebration. Strict Roman Catholics avoid meat that week, so menus rely on fish, particularly salt cod (bacalao), often cooked with garbanzo beans.
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Yet Semana Santa is not all about denial. Sweets play a prominent role. Torrija (tor-EE-ha) is especially popular. The custard-soaked fried bread is similar to pain perdu, or what we would call French toast.
“I fell in love with it in Grenada,” says Stratton. “Whenever we were invited to someone’s house, they would serve it. Every time I taste it, it pulls me back.”
To Stratton the dish seems especially apt at Easter time because it’s typically made with stale bread. “You are resurrecting something not really edible and transforming it, giving it a new life.”
You’ll find his version of torrija on the dessert menu at Aragona, served with a sherry caramel sauce. He says it’s the one dish that everyone trying out for a cook’s position had to make. Here’s the recipe if you want to give it a whirl yourself.
1 loaf fine-crumb white bread (Aragona uses challah)
1½ cups milk
½ cup cream
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon aniseed
Pinch of salt
1½ ounces anisette
Extra-virgin olive oil for frying
1. To prepare the bread: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut bread into 4-by-1-inch logs. Toast in a single layer on a sheet pan until cut surfaces are just dried slightly, but not colored. Allow to cool. (Or, cut bread into logs and air dry on a rack for several hours.)
2. To make the custard: Combine the milk, cream, sugar, aniseed and salt in a heavy saucepan. Scald over low heat until bubbles form around the edges, and a skin forms on the surface. Do not boil.
In a separate bowl, beat the eggs briefly. Slowly pour about one third of the scalded-milk mixture into the eggs to temper them, whisking constantly to avoid cooking eggs.
Slowly whisk the tempered-egg mixture back into the pot with remaining milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until custard thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon (about 10 minutes). Pour thickened custard into a shallow baking dish to cool. Add the anisette when the custard has cooled.
3. To cook the bread: Place dried bread pieces in a single layer in the custard. Allow to soak 3 to 5 minutes, flipping halfway through, until bread is saturated. Work in batches if necessary. Drain bread on a rack over the baking dish for several minutes.
Heat several tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Brown the bread pieces on all sides, working in batches.
Serve hot or room temperature with caramel sauce for dipping.
Sherry Caramel Sauce
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon honey
½ cup dry amontillado sherry
1 ounce butter
In a heavy-bottomed pot combine the sugar, just enough water to dampen it, and honey. Stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve. Cook on medium-high heat, swirling occasionally but not stirring until it thickens and turns a dark caramel color. Remove from heat. Carefully add sherry to stop the cooking of the caramel, then whisk in butter, and salt to taste.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com. Lindsey Wasson is a Times staff photographer.